The Floating University

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The Essential Value of a Classic Education.

JEFFREY BRENZEL, Philosopher, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Yale University

Lesson Overview

Some people regard the classics as mere historical artifacts or fodder for cocktail party conversation. To succeed in today's world, the thinking goes, it's not necessary to closely read Plato's Republic or Dante's Inferno when one can easily find a summary in Cliff Notes or on Wikipedia. Professor Brenzel argues that not only can reading the great classics enrich your education, it can actually make your life better. Pointing out that we can't possibly read all of the books in the world, Brenzel makes a case for reading the right books the right way in order to get the most intellectual bang for your reading buck. Which books qualify in the canon of the "right" books is one of the most controversial subjects in academia, and Brenzel outlines his take on the five key characteristics that every great book must fulfill in order to make that coveted list.

From "What's the best kind of life for a human?" to "How should governments be arranged?", the great classics tackle some of the most enduring questions that have resisted the attempts of science and the ages to solve. Brenzel will try to convince you that having intimate conversations with these great works will not only build your intellectual muscle but will also help you to grapple with the big questions in your own life and improve your judgment.


  • Course Pack: Hubert Dreyfuss & Sean Kelly, All Things Shining. (pp. 118–142)

Discussion Questions

(1.) What role do you expect the great works of the more remote past to play in your own education? Did anything in the lecture or the readings cause you to change your views on this question in any way? The influences of classical works on Christianity might be fertile ground for this aspect of the discussion. Given Dean Brenzel’s point that you have very limited time to devote to the pursuit of an education, what principles are you using to determine how to spend that time? 

(2.) At the end of his lecture, Dean Brenzel claims that you cannot fully understand what is valuable about reading “classics” until you have actually put forth the effort to do so. Is there anything suspicious about this claim? Let’s say that someone tries to convince you that you should take up birdwatching. She points out all the great things you would learn and all the great joys that birdwatchers ultimately derive from becoming expert “birders”. She says that anyone who undertakes this hobby wholeheartedly will come to love it and see its value. What would make you resist this kind of argument? Is Dean Brenzel’s argument different in some important way from the argument that a birdwatcher or an amateur astronomer or an ice skater might make about their own favorite activities? 

(3.) Dean Brenzel gives his five criteria for determining if a book is a classic and thus worth your time. But is he missing any important criteria for selecting a great book? Likewise, have you read anything you would consider a “classic” that fails Brenzel’s five-pronged test? 

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About Jeffrey Brenzel

Jeffrey Brenzel is the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University and a lecturer in Yale's Philosophy Department. He has worked as a nonprofit executive, a private sector entrepreneur, a scholar, and a university administrator. In this capacity as the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale, Brenzel is responsible for worldwide outreach to talented students, the selection process itself, and the development of university admissions policy and practices. Brenzel earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame, while at the same time founding and developing InterLearn, Inc., an investor-backed venture that used new media and technology to produce career education and liberal arts programs for adult learners.